• Philippa Dengler

"By mid-life many of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves" (John Gardner)

Updated: Mar 9

Thoughts on workplace diversity on International Women's Day 2019



There is indisputable evidence that having diverse teams, and importantly an inclusive environment in which everyone can contribute, is essential for sustained business success - and the good news is that more and more companies are proactively tackling workplace diversity. Gender balance in particular. It's rare to find anyone today who will openly disagree with the statement that every voice needs to count. And yet, for men and women alike, that’s often not how it feels, is it? So, why are we losing our voices? And what can we do to find them again?


Since time began human beings have gathered in groups to share experiences and tell stories. The stories we tell each other create a sense of who we are, where we come from, of belonging, our history, our culture, our values. The stories we tell ourselves on a daily basis shape our self-identity, how we see ourselves in the world, what we do and how we do it. Finding the balance between who I am and who we are is something we all constantly manage.


As social animals we humans have evolved to copy one another. It’s natural human behaviour to imitate others in order to belong. It’s an important part of how we learn. Whenever you interact with children you realise very quickly children learn what appropriate behaviour is not through what we say but by copying what we do. Even as adults, we imitate the people we consider to be successful - often not even consciously. The ability to copy and fit in is part of our evolutionary genetic make-up and has been vital for our success as a species.


Unfortunately, in a workplace context, this "ability" has contributed over the past decades to the development of fairly homogenous management teams; made up of individuals who are more alike than different, often hired for their “cultural fit”, who think in similar ways and constantly run the risk of dysfunctional decision making due to a phenomenon known as “group think”. Homogenous leadership teams at the top of our hierarchical structures can unintentionally prevent many more diverse voices from lower levels of the organisation from being heard properly.


If you are part of an homogenous team you are lucky - and damned at the same time. You’re lucky because you are in a position of privilege; one in which you are on the same wavelength as others in the group, are listened to and can contribute your ideas freely. The problem is from that position of privilege it is genuinely very difficult to see that other people might feel differently, perhaps feel excluded and probably need your help to make their voice heard. Research clearly shows often subtle, but nonetheless important, differing needs of different types of people in organisations. And yet it’s still easy, from a position of privilege, to assume that that research applies to "other companies" and "other teams" - but not to mine.


As I shared with attendees at the Buhler International Women's Day event I experienced this myself at the begining of my career. I joined General Electric in the 90s on a graduate leadership development programme which was a great kick-start to my career. In those days GE was just setting up its Women’s Network, and as a young woman I was asked to get involved. To be honest I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I knew that in the past women had been oppressed and had to fight for equal opportunities but from where I stood at work in the western world that was clearly a thing of the past. I didn’t feel discriminated against. On the contrary, I felt like the world was my oyster. I felt like I had a voice and was able to make things happen. In my view, at the time, it was up to the individual, male or female, to "get on with it" and make the most out of their life and career - just like I was doing. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I realised at that time I was in a position of privilege; part of a high profile management development programme, with lots of exposure to senior management, and to be honest no different from any of the men on the same programme as me - I worked 70+ hours a week, travelled at the drop of a hat, had no outside commitments and I even wore trouser suits to work every day. From my position of privilege I couldn’t see that it wasn’t the same for everyone.


Now, years later, I finally get it - networks, affinity groups and events like the International Women’s Day do play an important role in helping people who aren’t in the majority to feel connected. They help people feel like they belong. Help people find people with similar stories to theirs. Networks and affinity groups (often called Employee Resource Groups ERGs) enable people to add their small voice to other voices in order to be heard whilst remaining connected to important aspects of who they are. And from a business perspective they are a valuable source of insight into the different perspectives and needs of these groups.


What I was doing back then in my 20s without realising it, was imitating and fitting in. And the system we’ve created for ourselves at work rewarded me and encouraged me to keep on doing it. In the process, over the years, as happens to so many people, slowly but surely - almost imperceptibly - parts of my personality, my talents, my voice were being slowly but surely and unwittingly supressed – by me – in order to fit into the story of having a successful career.


For many of us it takes until mid-career to notice the impact of this process and start to question what am I doing? and why? This is sometimes triggered by a particular life event, the loss of a loved one, a serious illness or being made redundant, but often it can just be a feeling that s-l-o-w-l-y creeps up on us. The infamous “mid-life crisis” perhaps. John Gardner, the social scientist, politician and author said in his famous speech on Self Renewal ….. “by mid-life many of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves”. That is such a waste.


It’s a waste on a personal level because it can take considerable effort and energy to conform in rather than bring your uniqueness to the table. And that creates dissonance and stress that over time can create health problems. It’s a waste on a company level as it can mean many men and women are holding back parts of themselves and their talents and operating below their level of potential.


So what can we do? It seems like we are programmed by evolution to act like this and yet we live and work in a world that doesn’t respect the slow pace of evolution and has rocketed us into an era where to be successful in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world we need to connect and collaborate with people who are very different to ourselves.


The good news is the at the solution lies with each and every one of us. As leaders of teams, projects, families - of ourselves, we are in a position to make the cognitive effort required to be aware of our human nature and how it impacts our daily behaviour. Here's some things to try:


  • Catch yourself in the act of “losing” or “silencing” your voice for the sake of fitting in. When you realise you are doing it challenge yourself to bring more of your full self into your work, your passions, your values and your emotions.

  • Make sure you work for a company where you feel able to challenge when you see something that's not right at work; deliberate discrimination or unintentional, unconscious bias at play. Are you able to disagree when everyone around you is nodding their head? If not, why are you still there slowly losing your voice?

  • Deliberately bring in your unique perspectives and ideas based on your personal diversity and uniqueness – whether it’s visible diversity like your age, gender or nationality – or invisible diversity based on your experiences, your way of thinking and looking at things.Don’t underestimate the impact that your actions and words have on other people as they copy what you do.

  • Proactively help those around you to understand and feel comfortable with their diversity, and to value it by reawakening your curiosity about other people, being inquisitive and opening your heart and mind to ideas that may be very different to your own.

  • Be deliberately and overtly inclusive in your language, the way you design meetings and processes at work to ensure you are not unconsciously excluding people when you communicate or make decisions. By being - deliberately inclusive - in your behaviour you can help shape an environment in which others feel able to use their voices and want to use them.

  • Finally, become more mindful of how your unique presence in the world is beneficial – also when you are at work. Don’t hide it or take it for granted. Don’t waste it.


In our increasingly VUCA world every voice needs to count – can it count on yours?

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